North Jersey has no shortage of restaurants focusing on what might be considered "Mediterranean cuisine." Ridgewood alone boasts several, ranging from good (Lisa's Mediterranean and Mediterraneo), to cookie-cutter (casually glances at It's Greek To Me). So when I saw another restaurant billing itself as "Mediterranean" was opening on Chestnut Street, I wasn't overcome with anticipation. In fact, I was only vaguely interested in the prospect. I'm here to tell you that I was a moron.
After my first meal at Novo Mediterranean, I proclaimed it "excellent," "one of the most exciting new restaurants in the area," and noted that it "has potential to become a favorite."
After the next meal I upped the ante, stating "Chef Kahlon is a stone cold killer," and "serious effing business here." It took me a while, but I am no longer (as much of) a moron. Novo is, indeed, irrefutably, one of the most exciting new restaurants to hit North Jersey in a long time. After three meals it is, without a doubt, a favorite. I cannot imagine ever tiring of Chef Kahlon's cooking--although his dashing good-looks are starting to grate on me.
I should talk about the food.
The first thing that hit our table was a loaf of house-made bread. A steaming log of olive oil coated, airy bread, sprinkled with sea salt. The bread alone is reason to return. I can't imagine how good a sandwich made with this stuff would be. Throw some ham in there and call it a day. If at the moment that bread hits the table you don't realize that you're in the hands of an excellent chef, you'll only have consider the punch of flavor packed into house-made za'atar to be convinced. I couldn't figure out what was in it, and I don't care; some things are too good to ponder.
I'm bloviating enough as it is, and I know you people have a very short attention span, so I'll just move on to some photos and brief comments.
This salad was popping-bright, with crunchy, fresh vegetables, appropriately dressed, and adorned with fried chickpeas and shaved cheese. This dish may very well encapsulate Chef Kahlon's approach to cooking. Lots of exciting acid, herbs, fresh ingredients, and textural contrast. He cooks like I like to eat.
The Jerusalem artichoke ravioli wowed us more than anything we've had in recent memory. Fresh herbs, tender ravioli stuffed with Jerusalem artichoke, garlic and sage, over spinach, sprinkled with excellent goat cheese, in a light yogurt sauce. We were so taken with this dish that we ordered it again during return visit. It was just as impressive the second time, as you may have already assumed.
Somewhat less to our liking (the bar, it was already very high) was a fish special that night. It wasn't clear to me that the dish would be fish cakes, rather than a filet of fish. However, there was little to complain about. A good amount of wonderful fish cakes. And of course, fresh vegetables, acid, herbs, textures, etc.
I'm not sure if it's clear from the picture, but just look at the care taken to plate this tomato and melon salad. Tiny little roasted chiles on top, IINM. Typically, I would go right for the cheese, knowing the vegetables and fruit wouldn't live up to their potential. In this case, however, the (excellent) feta was the last thing we attacked. There was a lot of "oooh, did you get one of the tomatoes yet?" and "OMG try the melon." (We didn't really say "OMG.") See those hazelnuts in there? In the hands of a lesser chef, the textural contrast provided by those nuts would not be considered in the first place.
Mediterranean Octopus (an app), was nicely charred, and had a great supporting cast. As with pretty much all of the dishes here, the supporting case are stars in their own right. Pickled eggplant, fava beans, puff pastry, olives, grilled onions--acid, herbs, veg, textures...
Do I need to note that the squid dish was filled with acid, herbs, fresh vegetables, and textures (little croutons this time, I think)? Of course I don't.
You know when you go to one of those fake "Spanish" or "Iberian" restaurants that litter North Jersey like goose dung? And you get that big plate of dry rice and sad seafood that they try to pass off as paella? Well if you find yourself in the mood for that slop in the future, think better of it, and get to Novo and order the Homemade Seafood Couscous. It will put that other crapola to shame. And don't forget to get in there and get some of that seafood broth on the bottom of the bowl.
This plate of roasted vegetables hit the table, I think to accompany another dish. Didn't matter. This plate of vegetables stood on its own.
This plate of roasted cauliflower is an app, and billed as Taboon Cauliflower. A taboon is that oven with fire they have back there. It has green tahini sauce. It is outrageously good.
With these two dinners behind me--I have a hard time believing we really ordered all of that food at only two dinners (and it's quite possible there were three...I'm really out of it)--I wanted to give Novo a shot at lunch.
I was hoping they wouldn't serve that bread at lunch, because there would have been little stopping me from eating the whole loaf. They didn't. Because they're smart. Instead, the serve a wonderful dish of pickled vegetables. There goes that acid, herb, veg thing again. This dish was just a joy.
The salmon burger was absolutely delicious. Unlike too many places that ham-handedly try to impress with a big bun of some sort, Chef Kahlon knows that this patty of ground salmon, barely cooked, is best served on an inconspicuous sesame-seeded bun. Just enough bread to manage this burger. And did I detect acid and herbs in this dish? You betcha. Served with a good slather of lemon aioli. Also, with eggplant chips. If you don't think you like eggplant very much (like me), give these a try.
I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try the roasted Brussels Sprouts. Glad I didn't. A better version of this dish I cannot recall. Perhaps it was the duck fat and spices.
The room is a real stunner. Lots of natural light, wood tables (I can do without white tablecloths), lots of textures and warm tones. The hallway leading to the kitchen is painted black, so the servers just seem to appear and disappear. That's a nice touch. They really did a bang-up job on the place.
They've had music on during our dinner visits, which is mandatory for me. I recall that it wasn't very good the first time. The second time the tunes were of the Zero 7 ilk, which is fine by me, even though that was the stuff of NYC restaurant soundtracks in 2007. We're catching up here, in New Jersey.
The service has been eager, friendly, and professional. The servers, some of whom are quite young, seem to know how to answer questions, rather than responding with the too-typical "I dunno, let me check." Looks like someone figured that training staff might actually be good for business.
During one visit I couldn't contain my excitement and for some reason told the young server that she is working at the best restaurant in the area. She must have passed the compliment on to the chef, because a plate of dessert came out. I don't recall what it was, but there were no herbs in it that I can recall. It did, of course, have textural contrast and acid.
Since I've been trying to eat less meat these days, all of dishes I've had have been fish and vegetables. I haven't even considered the meat dishes at Novo. Yet. I can only imagine what Chef Kahlon is doing with duck and lamb. And I hope to find out soon.
Novo Mediterranean : 37 Chestnut Street : Ridgewood, NJ : 201.444.4910